Beth Lipton is a writer and certified health coach. She is a contributing editor at Clean Plates.
Stripped down to the most basic difference, a routine is something you do because the act of doing it is good for you or preventative of something bad for you. A practice, on the other hand, is something you do to get better at something. If you have a yoga practice, perhaps you gain flexibility or balance or strength (or all three). With meditation, the objective isn’t to get better at meditation; as my teacher, Emily Fletcher, says, “We practice meditation to get better at life.” A meditation practice can help improve focus and mood, relieve stress, improve sleep, and many other things.
To give you a sense of how this works, here’s what my morning looks like. This is what I do pretty much every day, whether it’s a workday or the weekend.
- Get up to pee (sorry, but #realtalk)
- Meditate for 20 minutes
- Cuddle with my daughter
- Drink a big glass of water with half of a lemon squeezed in
- Make/drink Bulletproof coffee
- Brush my teeth
Notice I didn’t say, “This is my morning routine.” And there’s a reason why. Some of the things on this list are part of my routine, and some are things I practice.
So, a practice is better than a routine then, right? Not at all. Routines are important—imagine what would happen if you didn’t keep up your tooth-brushing routine.
We need routines and practices.
Both routines and practices are necessary. The place where it’s important to make the distinction is where something could be a routine or a practice, and you have to decide which one the activity is and focus accordingly. One of the nice things about routines is that you don’t have to give them a ton of thought. Maybe you sometimes consider changing up your toothpaste or switching brands of electric toothbrush. But day to day, tooth brushing is probably just something you do. And you need that—none of us has the time or energy to put a lot of focus on all of our healthy habits.
It gets murkier with something like fitness. Do you ever see people in the gym absently churning away on the elliptical machine? Sometimes they’re reading a magazine or watching TV at the same time, leaning on the machine a bit. I always wonder when I see people doing that how often they do it, is it their only activity in the gym, and are they reaching their fitness goals? If you asked them, would they say they enjoyed their fitness routine?
Now, sometimes a workout is the perfect time to zone out a bit. Not every workout has to also be a mindfulness exercise, where you’re fully present and in the moment the whole time. But if you’re always zoning out during workouts, it begs the question whether this routine is actually serving you. Are you working as hard as you need to, are you changing up your activities, are you conscious of your form/quality of movement, etc.? Is that block of your precious time being used as well as it could be?
Healthy eating is another routine vs practice quandary. Is it a routine or a practice? Arguably it’s both—you do it frequently because the act of doing it is good for you. But then, the more you practice it, the more you discover new foods, the better you might get at cooking, the more you might enjoy the whole process. Or not—maybe you never find a love of cooking, and healthy eating remains something you just do to stave off disease or weight gain.
So now it’s up to you. Look at some of your healthy habits and categorize them into routine or practice. (We find it useful to write it down.)
- What makes each one a routine, or a practice, or both?
- Do you see instances where an activity falls into one category but you’d prefer that it be in the other? If so, what steps can you take to move it there?
The point of this is not to create more work for you; rather, it’s to make sure that all the things you do are serving you. Remember, our healthy habits exist to help us enjoy our lives more, not to give us a longer to-do list. If you can tease out the things you’re doing that could bring you a better result, consciously switch categories (e.g., instead of running to nowhere on the elliptical for 45 minutes while you watch a Real Housewives rerun, pop into that rowing class you’ve been meaning to take).
What did you learn from this exercise? We’d love to hear about it.
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